A courageous girl survived Hurricane Katrina and years of sexual abuse by her own father. How Wichita County prosecutors tried him and won four consecutive life sentences against him.
In 2005, the Layer family lived in the Gulf Coast city of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Jon Layer and his wife, Lucy, had three children. The baby of the family, Amanda (some names have been changed to protect the identities of victims), was a sweet, 10-year-old girl in the fifth grade. She was a year younger than her sister and six years younger than her brother. Even though the Layers didn’t have much in the way of material possessions, Amanda’s childhood was normal in many ways. But on the inside, she lived with the darkest of secrets. For as long as she could remember, her father had molested her daily.
Lucy met Jon in a suburb of New Orleans in 1988 when she was 15 years old. He was 23, and she looked to him to help her cope with her own demons, which stemmed from years of sexual abuse at the hands of her own father. Little did she know that the cycle of sexual abuse would live on through the new man in her life to whom she clung for emotional support.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck land. Thousands of families, including the Layers, were left homeless after the deadly winds subsided. Luckily, the Layers had relatives in Keller, Texas, who opened their home to the displaced family. Jon, Lucy, and the three kids stayed in Keller for several months until they moved back to Mississippi to live in a FEMA trailer. They lived in FEMA housing for several months until they moved in with another set of relatives in Wichita Falls. During this almost two-year period of upheaval and instability, Amanda continued to endure daily sexual abuse. Every place the family lived, her father found an opportunity to violate her. Like so many sexual predators, he became bolder and would even molest Amanda while other children were sleeping in the same bedroom. On one occasion in Keller, Lucy walked in and found Layer fondling their daughter on the couch. Lucy was alarmed, but she still did nothing to report what she discovered. All the while, Amanda came to accept the belief that no one would rescue her from the nightmare.
As a 12-year-old seventh grader in Wichita Falls, Amanda seemed to be doing well in school. However, the weight of the abuse was heavy, and it caused stress and constant stomachaches. At the end of the school year in 2008, she confided in a friend about the sexual abuse, and the friend insisted that Amanda tell the school counselor. The counselor immediately notified CPS, and an investigation ensued.
Later that day, Detective Alan Killingsworth of the Wichita Falls Police Department arrived at the junior high to investigate the allegation of sexual assault. After speaking with the counselor and school administrators, Killingsworth decided to take the girls to the child advocacy center (CAC) to perform forensic interviews. As he escorted Amanda and her sister out to his car, one of the girls pointed to a vehicle in the parking lot and said it was their dad who was there to pick them up. Before Killingsworth could confront Layer, he fled the parking lot and drove away, parking his car at a nearby grocery store and walking the few remaining blocks home. At that point, no one had told Layer about the accusations.
Meanwhile, Amanda and her sister were both interviewed at Patsy’s House, the CAC. During the interview, Amanda wrote a letter in crayon explaining that she had held onto a secret but could not hold it any longer. In the letter, she apologized for telling on her father and expressed her own guilt for being unable to keep it inside. Amanda mustered the courage to give a full disclosure of countless acts of sexual abuse. However, her sister made no such allegations. It became clear that Layer had singled out Amanda as the object of his deviate sexual desires. She disclosed acts of sexual abuse that occurred in Wichita Falls, Keller, and Mississippi. She told of how her father fondled her genitals and performed oral sex on her in bed before school. Additionally, he would attempt to perform both vaginal and anal penetration, but she would resist by pushing him away. He even tried to engage her in oral sex by forcing her head down to his crotch. She said that her father owned different vibrators that he would use on her. She was able to identify four particular incidents that had occurred within the prior month in Wichita Falls. Three of the acts involved digital penetration and another was oral sex by her father. Amanda found it difficult to identify individual acts of abuse because her entire life had become one long string of abuses. It was what defined her childhood.
Later that afternoon, Detective Killingsworth traveled to the Layer residence. As expected, Jon was not home, but Lucy was. While officers executed a search warrant inside the modest house shared by two families, Killingsworth interviewed Lucy and discovered the dark world of Jon Layer. In the midst of the sudden stress and excitement, Lucy told all. She described Layer as a controlling husband and father who demanded much from his family. Lucy described him as being verbally and physically abusive and “sexually off-the-wall.” During sex, he would choke her and force objects inside of her. He demanded sex from her twice daily and would be angered if she did not comply. She told of a time when he manufactured a sexual device from power tools and used it against her will. On another occasion, he forced her and a female cousin to engage in sex acts. One of the most disturbing details she disclosed was that she complied with her husband’s demands so that he would not go to the children for sex. A clear picture of Jon Layer as a manipulator with strong sexual desires that were satisfied at the expense of others was emerging.
Within days of the outcry, Layer was behind bars. From that point on, a hurricane-like force moved into Amanda’s life causing great pressure and distress. She quickly realized her siblings blamed her for what happened to their father. Lucy continued to have regular contact with her husband by writing letters, making phone calls, and visiting him in jail. Within three months of the initial outcry, Amanda recanted. She wrote a short, handwritten statement saying that she made it up because he wouldn’t let her go to a school dance. The note consisted of a few jumbled sentences explaining her reason for the allegations.
Jon Layer was charged with four counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child. We chose not to charge him with continuous sexual abuse because, during her outcry, Amanda disclosed four specific acts of sexual abuse in Wichita County. Based on the timeframes she gave, we believed that all four occurred within 30 days. At the time, the continuous sexual abuse statute was still new, and we didn’t want to create an appealable issue if it wasn’t necessary by alleging acts that occurred in other jurisdictions. Additionally, if Layer were convicted of aggravated sexual assault, we expected the sentences would be stacked.
Our biggest fear at trial was that Amanda would be unable to face her father in court and testify about the abuse. Additionally, the defense could impeach her based on her recantation. Even if Amanda were unable or unwilling to testify, the outcry statute would allow us only to call the forensic interviewer to testify about two of the four counts that occurred days before Amanda’s 13th birthday. We waited until a couple of weeks before trial to meet with her. Until that point, we didn’t know whether she would be willing to talk about the abuse. We assured her that her only job was to tell the truth and that she was not responsible for all of the bad things that happened as a result of her testimony. Despite much trepidation, she admitted the allegations were true.
On the second morning of trial, we brought her into the courtroom to tell her story. The atmosphere intensified when Amanda sat down to face her father. Several of the jurors shed tears during her testimony as she shared her sordid memories of the abuse. She courageously answered the questions and provided the details that no child should ever have to disclose. Amanda told the story of how her family waited out the floodwaters of Katrina in their attic as they feared for their lives. She told about the first time that her daddy ever touched her inappropriately. They were on their way to pre-school and she remembered being stopped at an intersection near a Burger King as it occurred. Another time, he assaulted her and then called her a “good girl” when it was over. During another act of abuse, she remembered feeling her father’s cold hands against her skin as he fondled her. These important details emerged as snapshots of this little girl’s life. We repeated that imagery during closing arguments to help jury members understand why it was difficult to tell of the abuse in a concise narrative. Amanda remembered bits and pieces of her life, just like a photo album filled with snapshots. Even though she was shy and reserved, Amanda did a great job of answering the questions that were asked.
To explain the recantation, we called Dr. William Carter of Waco. Dr. Carter is a psychologist specializing in sexual abuse of children and has testified frequently as an expert in the field. He educated the jury on many of the complicated dynamics surrounding such cases. He explained that in a situation like Amanda’s, she would feel responsible for all of the negative effects that stemmed from the outcry. Additionally, he explained that before the outcry, she had likely accepted her role as the victim because she saw no feasible way out of the situation. Amanda knew that her mother was not a safe outlet because she was also under her father’s powerful control. Dr. Carter’s testimony proved invaluable.
Lucy Layer took the stand and was questioned about her husband’s strange behavior on the day of the outcry. She reluctantly admitted that her husband came home without the girls and then left the house shortly thereafter. He remained in hiding for several days until he submitted to a voluntary interview at the police department. When Lucy tried to protect her husband at trial by downplaying his actions, we used her previous sworn testimony and the recorded statement she made to Detective Killingsworth for impeachment. She was reluctant to admit that she had once caught her husband in a suspicious situation with Amanda when they lived in Keller. When confronted, she also admitted that her daughter had a good reputation for truth-telling. It was important for the jury to see the family dynamics that spurred Amanda’s recantation.
One of the most damning pieces of evidence came from one of the defendant’s own family members. Kitten Hotard was the cousin who had been forced to engage in sexual acts with both Lucy and Jon. Kitten testified that sometime around Christmas 2000, she was staying at the Layers’ home in Mississippi. One evening, they were sitting around drinking when Layer made a statement that was burned into her mind. He said that he had named Amanda after a porn star so he could “lay her later.” (Detective Killingsworth researched and confirmed the existence of the porn star after whom Layer had named his daughter.) This evidence provided the jury with a glimpse into the mind of a sexual predator. The defendant made that statement when his daughter was 5 years old, which showed his forethought and sexual depravity.
The open door
During cross-examination of the State’s witnesses, the defense attempted to prove that Amanda was fabricating the allegations. In the defendant’s recorded statement at the police department, he recited a story explaining that he was strict on Amanda and would not let her go to a school dance or a camp that she wanted to attend, which the girl later used as reasons that she lied about the sexual abuse. Additionally, during cross-examination, the defense argued that Layer did not have the opportunity to molest his daughter because so many people lived in the house. This defense of fabrication and lack of opportunity opened the door for us to prove up an extraneous offense to show Layer had molested another girl under similar circumstances.
In 1986, Layer lived outside of New Orleans in the community of Kenner. He was dating a girl named Laura who occasionally worked as a babysitter. One day, Laura was watching a 6-year-old girl named Kimberly. During a moment when Laura was in another room, Layer seized an opportunity to touch Kimberly inappropriately. The incident was reported to the police, and Layer pleaded guilty to attempted indecent behavior with a juvenile.
We tracked her down by obtaining the Kenner Police Department’s files from 1986. Our investigator, Greg Young, called her in Louisiana, reopening a chapter of Kimberly’s life that had long been closed. She was initially hesitant to re-visit the traumatic events, but she realized the importance of helping in any way possible and agreed to testify.
We called Kimberly, now 29, to testify about her memory of the event to rebut the defensive theories of fabrication and lack of opportunity. She wasn’t able to identify the defendant, but she knew the man who molested her was named Jon Layer. The defendant stipulated that he was the same person who was at the babysitter’s house with Kimberly to keep us from introducing the previous indecency judgment. (We later offered the judgment during punishment.) Kimberly gave a tearful account of what happened to her as a little girl and rebutted the defensive claims.
It took the jury less than an hour to find the defendant guilty of all four counts. We re-called Kimberly to the stand to ask her a single question: “Have you ever forgotten what happened to you?”
“No,” she said matter-of-factly.
The Louisiana judgment for the offense of attempted indecent behavior with a juvenile was offered. The range of punishment for the offenses against Amanda was up to 99 years or life instead of mandatory life because the prior conviction was an inchoate offense. (The “one-strike” sex offender enhancement in Texas would require the conviction be for indecency with a child by contact or its Louisiana equivalent. Because the prior was “attempted,” the enhancement didn’t apply.)
After only 18 minutes, the jury returned with a clear message to those who molest children: Layer was sentenced to life in prison on each of the four counts, and Judge Mark T. Price stacked the sentences. During the trial, a verse from Matthew 18 kept coming back to me: “But whoso shall cause one of these little ones who believe in Me to fall, it were better for him that a millstone were hung about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Another prosecutor had used it during cross in a sexual assault case two weeks prior.) The jury didn’t have the option of a millstone, but four stacked life sentences were the next best thing.
A little redemption
The Friday afternoon before trial, I had a conversation with Laura, the defendant’s former girlfriend who now lives in rural Pennsylvania. I told her I had a difficult question for her and inquired if Layer had ever sexually assaulted her in the past. After breaking down in tears, she disclosed that he had sexually assaulted her over 20 years ago in Louisiana. She said she had never told anyone before now, and it had haunted her ever since. I assured her that I would call her back after the trial to report the outcome.
The following Friday, I made a phone call to Pennsylvania. Laura was overjoyed to learn that Layer was finally going to prison. She said that the entire experience changed her life and that she felt a new freedom. She admitted that the trauma of her own experience had caused her to be an overprotective mother; however, because Layer was now behind bars, she felt like everything would be OK.
I spoke with Amanda’s mother several weeks ago and they seem to be doing well. They were going to stay in Wichita Falls but change their last name. The story of the trial was highly publicized, and someone even asked Lucy if she was related to that “guy on the news.” I encouraged her to take Amanda back to the CAC for counseling, but I don’t think she ever did. One of our prosecutors had a lot of girl’s clothes that she donated to Amanda. She is repeating eighth grade this year.